Highland's Henry Morris spent all week practicing with a basketball he hates. The Spalding is too slippery, nothing like the Wilson ball he prefers, but it's the kind East High uses.
The practice must have paid off, because Friday night in a rival's gym and with an uncomfortable ball in his hands, Morris looked very much at home. The junior forward sank four 3-pointers and scored a game-high 14 points to lift Highland over East 51-41.
"To the players, it's the biggest game of the year," Morris said. "There's so much hype built up to all of this. It's kind of surreal."
The hype might have hurt both teams in the beginning. The Rams and Leopards looked sloppy and had trouble finishing at the rim or knocking down jump shots in the game's early goings. They finished the first quarter tied at 5-5.
Highland's Riley Tucker scored all 10 of his points in the second quarter, but Rams coach Keith West was less than impressed with his team's performance going into the locker room.
"I thought we played horrible in the first half," he said. "I thought that was maybe our worst half ... of offensive basketball that we've played all year. We were too hyped up. Didn't run our stuff."
In the second half, however, Highland (11-5, 4-0) calmed down and Morris heated up.
The forward knocked down a wide-open 3 in front of his own bench and turned to his teammates and screamed. He hit another from the same spot, looked at his Rams and shook his head a few minutes later.
"They made some mistakes," West said about the Leopards. "You can't leave Henry that open. There was nobody on him. We ran some real simple plays, and they were just really slow closing out on him, and Henry's going to hit that. If they were up in his face, that's one thing. Those were wide open. I expect those guys to hit those shots.
The Rams also were able to keep East's Parker Van Dyke in check. The Utah-bound guard scored a team high 13 points, a mark well below his average. Mitch Grant added 12 points in the loss.
"When we're hitting our shots and our D is on point like it was tonight," Morris said, "we're going to make some noise at state."